Archive for Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Live and learn?

December 10, 2002


Other states are learning from Kansasâ mistakes in privatizing its adoption and foster care services.

ItâÂÂs almost always preferable to learn from someone elseâÂÂs mistakes rather than have other people learn from yours.

ChildrenâÂÂs Rights Inc., a New York-based, nonprofit advocacy group, recently completed a study of efforts across the nation to privatize child welfare programs. In a story in MondayâÂÂs Journal-World, Madelyn Freundlich, policy director of ChildrenâÂÂs Rights Inc., hailed Kansas as âÂÂa pioneerâ in efforts to privatize adoption and foster care services.

Kansas apparently did a great service for other state governments across the nation by showing them how not to do privatization.

There are notable successes reported in the Kansas effort. The number of adoptions has risen sharply since the system was privatized in 1996, and the number of foster children in out-of-home placements has declined. But these gains have come at a high cost for some Kansas agencies.

The report noted that Kansas officials tried to do too much, too fast, causing communication breakdowns and tensions with service-providers. Kansas also did a poor job of including judges and foster parents in discussions about how the system should work, thereby alienating these key players in the system.

Florida now is working to privatize its child welfare system, Freundlich said, âÂÂbut theyâÂÂre taking a much slower, region-by-region approach - and the judges are very much involved - because they saw what happened in Kansas.âÂÂ

Glad we could be of help.

But the greatest failure of the Kansas system, the one that tends to overshadow much of its success, is its disastrous impact on agencies that signed on as contractors. The stateâÂÂs gains in adoptions and foster care numbers came with astronomical losses for the nonprofit agencies that provided adoption and foster care services.

United Methodist Youthville, a foster-care contractor, filed for bankruptcy last year after running through its $16 million endowment. Lutheran Social Services, a principal adoption contractor, was forced out of business after announcing in 2000 that it was $3.5 million in debt.

These losses and the catastrophic impact they had on two good longtime social service providers arenâÂÂt just a little âÂÂOoops.â The state accomplished its adoption and foster care successes by sucking millions of dollars out of charitable organizations. If the privatized Kansas system now is on a firmer footing, itâÂÂs because of the huge financial sacrifices made by these contractors. For Kansas officials - and others across the country - it may be a matter of âÂÂlive and learn,â but for these agencies, the lesson came with dire consequences. It is unfortunate there isnâÂÂt some way for the state to partially reimburse these two agencies or provide some assistance to keep them afloat.

American needs pioneers. Perhaps Kansas officials should be applauded for setting the pace, for being on the cutting edge of the privatization trend. But the fact that this cutting-edge approach to adoption and foster care became a knife in the heart of some service-providers tempers somewhat the sweet smell of success.

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